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UUU Art Collective creates space for emerging creatives

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One word to describe the UUU Art Collective and its three founders is legitimate, which is maybe not what you would expect from a company whose origin story includes house parties and bathroom kegs. Nevertheless, co-founders KC Sullivan, Dylan Niver, and Zac Lijewski have built something worthy of the word.

The collective organizes art exhibits at its State Street gallery, represents ten artists, facilitates sales, and provides networking services to help connect emerging artists with opportunities.

Most recently the gallery exhibited work by Zoe Schwartz, a sculptor from New York City. She's heading to the Rhode Island School of Design next academic school year, and used images from her solo show at UUU when applying. Next is a show by Ludovic Nkoth, an impressionist painter from Cameroon, West Africa, who Sullivan met at a hip-hop show in New York. Nkoth uses bold, contrasting colors, and has sold a piece to NBA star Carmelo Anthony.

The UUU team met at Nazareth College's music department in 2013. During their junior year, the age-old existential fear many emerging artists are met with as graduation approaches "hit them like a ton of bricks," Sullivan says. It seemed like Rochester didn't yield many opportunities for success, and Sullivan says he was aware that many other art students felt the same.

Many people talented artists are getting their art and music degrees in Rochester, Lijewski says. "But the moment they graduate, they're out. Why are they going?"

The answer, according to the trio, is that Rochester lacks enough resources and opportunities that allow emerging artists to gain a foothold, such as exhibition space and representation, and that larger cities seem more promising.

"We noticed that the infrastructure limiting visual artists was the same for musicians," Sullivan says. As musicians they struggled to find performance venues, and they knew visual artists were having troubles with exhibition spaces, he says.

So, they began throwing parties. Every other weekend, they transformed their shared, top-level apartment on Oxford Street into a gallery, showing the work of artists they went to school with or knew through friends, always with live music. One of the artists featured at the parties was David Blockes, who is now the graphic designer for UUU and works at Rochester design firm Partners + Naiper.

Central to these parties, the UUU teams says, were candid conversations about the lack of opportunities in town. These discussions all coalesced one early morning under University Avenue's umbrella bus stop at Elton Street (UUU stands for under university's umbrella). Together with Cody Laughton, a friend of Sullivan's since pre-K, they decided to be purposeful with their rejection of the starving artist cliché by creating a support system for emerging artists.

From there, UUU began presenting a series of pop-up shows in order to reach a broader audience and legitimize what they had started, Niver says.

The first of these pop-up shows was held at the Flying Squirrel Community Space on Clarissa Street. UUU rented the space for a night and displayed work by friends, which ranged from stacked-stone sculptures to illustrative paintings. It was a very eclectic curation, Niver says.

Rochester-based hip-hop artist Moses Rockwell participated in UUU's hip-hop pop-ups, and the gallery recently hosted the release party for his new album "The Unfortunate Case of Mortis Rocksalt."

The shows were well attended and successful in selling art, so the trio decided they needed a more permanent space moving forward. Their first brick-and-mortar was further down State Street, and they also had a brief stint in the First Federal Plaza Building before moving into their current space.

But the gallery barely chips the surface of UUU's role in the arts community. The collective works with about 20 artists from around the country and represents 10, including New York City-based painter Danny Cole and Rochester-based painter Bradd Young.

UUU works with artists to price and sell their work, while networking with other galleries to expand the opportunities available to artists. The collective also employs two dealers — Elias Dawli, who is based in New York City, and Larkin Brinkworth in California — who have known Sullivan since childhood and work exclusively for UUU.

The co-founders say their focus is on a relatively untapped market of young professionals who are interested in art, but who may not be sure how to engage with artists or become collectors. They have a specific interest in working with emerging artists, and say they try to price work so it's more accessible to young buyers, but without under-valuing the work.

The UUU team recently sold a painting by Bradd Young to a buyer from Minneapolis; he was referred to them by a friend who found the gallery online. Through conversation with the man, Sullivan says that he detected the buyer wasn't getting the engagement he craved from other galleries. Sullivan remedied that by communicating with the buyer for six weeks and connected him with various artists, before he decided on a piece by Young.

UUU's circle of artists keeps growing as creatives continue to reach out to work with them. The trio says they have always felt that "Rochester focuses too much on Rochester" by not connecting local artists with the wider world. They aims to help facilitate an interconnected web between Rochester and major cities, Niver says. "There are all these hubs, and without finding that connection, it's very hard to do on your own."